The SFBA's mission is protecting and enhancing recreational access to San Francisco Bay


A deep dive into marine safety communications. 

Marine Radio Guide

A VHF marine radio allows for direct communication with boats, ships, and the U.S. Coast Guard. If you sail a mile or more from shore or in an area where you would have difficulty returning safely to shore if you were disabled, you should seriously consider carrying a marine radio. When you carry a radio, you are improving safety for everyone because you can call for help if you come across another windsurfer or kite-surfer in distress.

Radio vs. Cell Phone

Because VHF radios allow you to talk directly with the Coast Guard stations and vessels in an emergency, VHF may allow you to guide help directly to your location. VHF radio will also allow you to talk with other commercial or pleasure boats in your area that may be able to offer assistance. Because VHF radios are available in highly waterproof form and with excellent warranties, they are a great option for the tough marine environment. For many people, the main downside of the VHF radio is the cost because they may already own a cell phone. Just remember that your cell phone will likely be ruined if it gets wet. While cell phones are affordable when they are packaged with service plans that include a 1-2 year commitment, they may be as expensive as a VHF radio to replace during the course of your contract. If you have a cell phone from a previous provider that you do not use, you may be able to carry it for 9-1-1 dialing only. Cellular networks are supposed to support 9-1-1 dialing even from phones that are not activated for general services. If you choose to carry a cell phone, it is usually best to directly dial the agency you need in an emergency since 9-1-1 operators may not be familiar with the nautical land marks and locations. For Coast Guard assistance in the S.F. bay, call (415) 399-3451.

Which Radio

You should buy a high quality hand held VHF marine radio, it is advisable to get a radio with the on/off/volume control to be buttons instead of knobs as they are hard to use/turn in a waterproof bag.

Carrying Your Radio

Many people carry their radio in a pouch or fanny pack. Some of the smaller radios can also be carried inside the wetsuit hanging around your neck. The higher up on your body you carry your radio, the less likely it is to be damaged by water intrusion since the water pressure increases with depth. If you carry a fanny pack, it will need to have a low profile so that it is not hit by waves as you lean out away from your sail. Some harness manufacturers make low profile packs that attach to the back of a harness. Your radio will not last long if it gets wet frequently. You should place your radio in a waterproof container, ideally a waterproof radio bag. Some people use a hard case because they find it more resistant to leaks and other place an extra bag inside or around their radio bag to create a double seal against water intrusion

Waterproof Pouch

The radio should ideally be carried in a high quality waterproof pouch. On the water, you should leave the radio inside the pouch when you operate it. The pouch screens any wind off of the microphone and will still provide a clear transmission. In high winds, wind noise and water on the mike can make the transmissions from an unprotected microphone totally unintelligible. Make sure to squeeze the air out of your pouch before sealing it as a pouch with air inside can blow a seam if you land on it after jumping. 

​Even the most durable radios fail and the best radios can fail in a matter of a few weeks of use if they are not carried in a waterproof pouch. Corrosion can quickly damage a radio. In a waterproof pouch, condensation will result in a radio getting wet even if the pouch does not leak at all. Ideally, the radio should be rinsed and dried frequently. The combination of a submersible rated radio and a waterproof pouch should allow you to get multiple seasons of use from your radio. You can place desiccant pouches in the radio bag to absorb the moisture from condensation.

Radio Settings

Before you go out, you should make sure that your VHF radio is set to U.S. channels. Most VHF radios have a button that will switch the radio between U.S. channels, Canadian channels, and International channels. If you accidentally switch to Canadian or International channels, your broadcasts may not be heard.
Most VHF radios can transmit at low (1 watt) and high (5 watt) power settings. You should initially transmit on low power so that you are not tying up the emergency frequency in other areas. If you cannot get an answer or the answering party is having difficulty hearing you, then you should switch to high power.


  • 14 Vessel Traffic Service
  • 16 Distress/Emergency
  • 20A/21A/22A Coast Guard Operations​​
You should test your radio regularly. You can conduct a radio check on Channel 9. Do not conduct a radio check on Channel 16, 21A, or 22A. The best bet is to find another windsurfer or kite-surfer with a radio and call them requesting a radio check. They can reply by telling you that they read you “loud and clear” if all is well. This will allow you to check the speaker and the microphone as well as the ability to transmit.

In an emergency situation, you will hail the Coast Guard on Channel 16. Once they establish contact, they may ask you to shift to another channel. When you are getting tossed around with your gear in the waves, it is easy for the radio to get bumped and the channel can get switched. If you lose contact, confirm your channel setting. Ideally you should learn how to lock the keys on your radio and lock the channel in once you are on the working frequency.


Only one radio can be heard at a time on most VHF channels. If you transmit while someone else is transmitting, one or both of the broadcasts will not be heard. You should listen before you transmit to make sure that you are not going to interrupt (“step on”) another communication. If you broadcast a message and do not get an immediate reply, you should wait for a minute and listen and then try again. 
VHF radio communications are generally line of sight communications. If there is an obstruction (e.g. an island or buildings) between you and the station you are calling, your broadcast may not reach that station. The Coast Guard has repeater antennae located around the bay that improve coverage. If you cannot reach the Coast Guard in an emergency, another vessel may be able to relay messages for you. Many ships and boats monitor Channel 16 on a regular basis. If you are trying unsuccessfully to reach the Coast Guard and no one volunteers to act as a relay, you should ask if any mariner can relay your messages.

Radio Terminology

Because VHF radio requires that you take turns transmitting, it is normal to use pro-words such as “over” and “out” at the end of your transmission in order to let others know that the frequency is now open for them to transmit or reply. Generally, you will finish your transmission with “over.” If you are making a final call and do not expect a reply, finish by adding “out” at the end of your transmission. You should start every transmission by identifying who you are calling and then who you are (e,g, “Coast Guard, this is ________”). Numbers are generally given digit by digit (for the number 60 you would say “six zero” vs. “sixty”). If you can remember, use the appropriate terminology, but don’t be overly concerned with the details. The Coast Guard is there to help and in an emergency they will work with you regardless of how well honed your radio skills are.
If you or someone is in immediate danger, you can initiate your broadcast with “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” and immediately broadcast the information on your position and the situation even before you hear anyone respond. In an urgent situation, you would initiate the broadcast with Pan-pan, Pan-pan, Pan-pan or you can call “Coast Guard, Coast Guard.” If you know which station is close by you can call for that station. Under the Golden Gate Bridge you would call for Station Golden Gate. If you were not west of Alcatraz (i.e. Berkeley, Coyote Point, Larkspur) you would call for Station San Francisco. In most cases, the Coast Guard will ask you to switch to another channel once communications are established so that channel 16 is free if another emergency comes up.
For instructions on a formal Mayday call, see the Coast Guard website:
In general, you will have time to hail the Coast Guard and get a reply before giving all the necessary information. The Coast Guard radio operators generally expect to hear from boats, so they may ask you what kind of vessel you are, the length of your vessel, and the number of persons on board. You may need to tell them more than once that you are a windsurfer or kitesurfer. The Coast Guard boats can listen on the same frequencies as the stations. Once you see a Coast Guard boat in your area, you can direct them by asking the to come port (left) or starboard (right) to reach your location.


A hailing transmission should include:

(1) Who you are hailing, repeated twice (e.g. Coast Guard, Coast Guard)
(2) “This is” _________ (e.g. This is windsurfer off of Coyote Point)
(3) “on channel one six” (Coast Guard watch standers monitor numerous channels)
(4) “Over.”
The full hailing transmission would be:
Coast Guard, Coast Guard this is wind/kite surfer off of Coyote Point on channel one six. Over.
If there is more than one windsurfer or kite-surfer calling from your area, you may want to add your name after “windsurfer” or “kite-surfer” so that there is no confusion as to who is who or as to how many incidents are occurring (e.g. “this is windsurfer john” or “this is kite-surfer smith”). In rough seas your radio can get bumped as you struggle with your equipment. Check your radio frequently to ensure that you are still on the desired channel.

Example of an emergency communication via VHF radio

Wind/kite surfer: Coast Guard, Coast Guard, this is windsurfer located off Crissy Field, over.
USCG: Wind/kite surfer located off of Crissy Field, this is Coast Guard Station Golden Gate, over.
Wind/kite surfer: Station Golden Gate, this is Wind/kite surfer: located off Crissy Field. I am standing by with another Wind/kite surfer: who is injured. We are located approximately one point five miles north of Crissy Field East Beach and due east of the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, over.
USCG: Wind/kite surfer located off of Crissy Field, this is Station Golden Gate. Switch the channel two-two alpha (22A). If you cannot establish radio contact on two-two alpha (22A), switch back to channel one six (16), over.
Wind/kite surfer: Wind/kite surfer located off of Crissy Field switching to channel two-two alpha (22A) over (switch channel to 22A). Station Golden Gate, this is Wind/kite surfer located off of Crissy Field on 22 alpha over.
USCG: Wind/kite surfer located off of Crissy Field, this is Station Golden Gate. Can you describe the Wind/kite surfer and his injuries? Over.
Wind/kite surfer: This is Wind/kite surfer located off of Crissy Field. The injured Wind/kite surfer is a white adult male with a broken foot. He has a white board and a blue and yellow sail/kite. Over.

USCG: Wind/kite surfer located off of Crissy Field, this is Station Golden Gate. We will be launching a boat to your location. Can you stay with the injured Wind/kite surfer? Over.
Wind/kite surfer: This is Wind/kite surfer located off of Crissy Field. I can stay with the windsurfer. My board is yellow and my sail/kite is red. The current is flooding, so we are drifting in the direction of Alcatraz, over.

USCG: Wind/kite surfer located off of Crissy Field, this is Station Golden Gate. We have a boat headed in your direction, can you see the boat at this time? Over.
Wind/kite surfer: This is Wind/kite surfer located off of Crissy Field. I have your boat in sight. We are ten degree to his starboard (right) side and approximately five zero zero (500) yards ahead. Over.

USCG: Roger that. Our coxswain has you in sight.